April 11, 2007

To Be Jetlagged

2007 1510 page17 cap wake up in South Korea. It is not the quiet drifting between slumber and rising, but a sudden alertness. I’m full awake, jolted by the Minnesota sun half a world away. In Minneapolis, it is 1:00 p.m., and if I were there, I would be thinking about lunch, hand on the fridge door. 

Here, it is 4:00 a.m., and the world is plunged in darkness. I stand at the window and gaze down at the traffic. Several roads cut through the city. Their streetlamps are as cheerful as Christmas lights. A surprising number of cars are out. I feel a kinship with the occupants. I imagine them rushing to meetings or the airport or returning (finally) home.

I used to live in South Korea, and oh, how I loved this view, this looking down on the city from a high apartment. I’m here now to visit my sister and her family. It’ll be hours before they awaken. But I am ready to do something—go for a hike, go shopping, cook a meal. I settle for a book and a cup of green tea.


In Minnesota, I’d have finished lunch by now and would be sitting down to study or grade papers. Maybe I would call someone on the phone or put a load of laundry in the wash. I haven’t yet changed my watch. I like glancing down at my wrist and knowing instantly how out-of-sync I am with my new surroundings.


I am jetlagged, gloriously so. Midafternoon I can feel my body rebelling against the sun. By 6:00 p.m. it is an effort to keep my eyes open. When I retire finally at 9:00 or 10:00 p.m., I’m barely coherent. I’m physically in one place, but my body is longing for another.


2007 1510 page17The symptoms of jetlag remind me of an emotion I can’t quite place my finger on. It’s something abstract—an attitude or a feeling. Then it hits me: jetlag is a concrete version of nostalgia. After all, nostalgia is living in one time period while yearning for another.


Who hasn’t looked back on the past and thought it was more appealing? Who hasn’t thought an earlier era was easier, better, or more noble?


We imagine how lovely life would be without the go-go-go that permeates our waking hours. We shake our heads at how violence is glorified in films and in video games. We hear the misogynistic lyrics of a popular song, and we furrow our brows. What are kids listening to these days? Or we see images of war and hunger on the news, and we wonder: What is the world coming to?


It is tempting to remember the past as a pastoral existence, a twirling of buttercups. We think of sitting on the porch on a summer evening, watching fireflies, and chatting with neighbors. We think of the fifties, of Norman Rockwell, of the idealized family. But below even the glossiest surface, you’ll find a world in desperate need of saving.


The United States was never an innocent place. In the fifties, there were Jim Crow Laws,*# and sadly, many churches preached racial segregation. Before that, there was slavery, and before that, genocide. Native Americans were stripped of their land, and some communities were deliberately wiped out by infectious diseases.


The violence we decry in today’s society is matched or even trumped by violence in the past. Brutality is not a modern invention, nor is callousness. Yet we should not be discouraged. On the contrary, we should be inspired by those who have gone before us and fought for justice.


Throughout history, reformers and activists have lived fully in their time periods and become instruments of change. We inhabit the world we do because of luminaries such as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.


It’s good to watch the news and be distressed. It’s good that we are not apathetic to violence or poverty, and that we have the good sense to see the shallowness of consumerism. But longing for the past, while natural, isn’t productive. The past we long for is an idealized one.


Let us instead live fully and give fully to the generation and the community in which we now reside. Let us worship fully the God who is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow.



* Laws enacted in some parts of the United States prohibited Blacks from attending the same schools as Whites, riding in the front of buses, even drinking from the same water fountains as Whites.



Sari Fordham studies at the University of Minnesota, working on a postgraduate degree.